Knight-Thompson Speechwork is a highly effective, skills-based approach to speech and accent training for actors that places emphasis on developing the speaker’s detailed awareness of—and deep engagement with—the precise physical actions which make up speech. By combining a rigorous investigation of those actions with playful, experiential exercises, this work moves quickly and effectively past the usual interference that can make speech work difficult for many students.The primary guiding principle is curious, attentive interrogation—interrogation of what we’re doing physically when we speak; interrogation of what physical habits we may bring to the act of speaking that inhibit free and flexible expression; interrogation of what it is that makes speech intelligible or unintelligible; thoughtful investigation of what any text, moment, or medium might require from the actor in terms of skilled speech; interrogation of what, precisely, makes up what we call an ‘accent’; interrogation of what it is that allows actors to most efficiently, skillfully, and accurately adopt different accents.
Traditional methods of speech training have focused on teaching actors some variety of ‘Standard’ speech, usually (though not always) claimed to be superior to—and more ‘correct’ than—other, ‘nonstandard’ ways of speaking. Though there may be admirable rigor in the actual teaching, this approach is fundamentally limiting to the actor, as well as being linguistically and pedagogically unsound. By leading with prescription, the teacher will inevitably add to the perceptual confusion about speech that all students bring to the table. If, on the other hand, actors are first taught to really come to know their own vocal tracts, to be able to both feel and understand exactly what does what in order to produce the full range of speech sounds that exist in human languages, then they are vastly better equipped to do everything an actor needs to do, from connecting viscerally to language to acquiring and truthfully embodying other accents.
OKAY, BUT HOW DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK? WHAT DO YOU DO?
A Knight-Thompson Speechwork workshop or class usually begins with a study of anatomy. Through active play and rigorous attention to specific physicality, the course of study then proceeds to delve into descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) phonetics. Students learn all of the International Phonetic Alphabet instead of a narrow set of symbols corresponding to ‘official’ phonemes. They also learn the specific physicality of all possible speech actions before learning symbols (which aids in the learning of the symbols, and reinforces kinesthetic awareness of speech actions). As they gain mastery of phonetics, they proceed to use the IPA to do narrow phonetic transcription of speech. Throughout, the rigor of investigation is shot through with playful and exploratory exercises to encourage students to own and integrate their new skills, as well as to continue cultivating their curiosity about their own and others’ speech.Students then learn the skills of formal and informal American speech. These are studied one by one, with individual attention paid to each student’s progression towards mastery of each particular skill. With increased physical awareness, flexibility & release, and a solid foundation in descriptive phonetics, students are well-equipped to make subtle adjustments in their speech in accordance with the needs of the play, character, medium & moment. Crucially, students learn to make effortless adjustments both up and down the scale of linguistic detail. No one speech register will suit all occasions, just as no one accent will serve all characters an actor might play.
WHAT ABOUT ACCENTS?
The Knight-Thompson Speechwork approach to accents, though as yet uncodified in print (stay tuned—Phil Thompson and I are currently writing the book), extends these tools and techniques into accent acquisition. In addition to the six-day Experiencing Accents, workshop, we now offer one-day and three-day Accent Intensives, each focusing on a few specific accents. These are open to actors as well as teachers, and do not require any previous experience with Knight-Thompson Speechwork or any knowledge of phonetics, though obviously both are helpful.
Speaking With Skill is published by Methuen Drama. It is also available as an e-book.